Iranians celebrate fire festival

Iranians danced in the street, threw firecrackers and jumped over bonfires Tuesday night as authorities openly tolerated an ancient fire festival for the first time in 25 years.

Halted each year since the 1979 Islamic revolution because hardliners considered it un-Islamic, the Chaharshanbeh Suri, or Red Wednesday, festival was officially recognized in Tehran where the city council set aside dozens of parks for people to enjoy the boisterous celebrations.

Tens of thousands packed the streets of the capital hurling firecrackers into the air to mark the eve of the last Wednesday of the Iranian calendar year.

The festival dates back centuries to pre-Islamic times and is thought to be derived from Zoroastrian traditions which accord special properties to fire.

The Iranian New Year, which falls on March 20 this year, coincides with the spring equinox. Unlike previous years, when riot police blocked off streets and hardline Islamic vigilantes beat and arrested many trying to enjoy the festivities, security forces were virtually absent.

Old and young reveled in the new-found freedom.

"They wanted to try to stop this tradition but it will never die," said businessman Mahmoud Afshar, as his young children and neighbors leaped over a small bonfire in western Tehran.

"I think they realize now that every limitation they try to put on society has a negative effect," he said, adding that he and his family had been harassed by police when trying to mark the festival in previous years.

In an act meant to exorcise evil spirits and bring good luck for the coming year, people light small bonfires and jump over the flames shouting: "Give me your beautiful red color and take back my sickly pallor!."

Special noodle soups are prepared and shared among friends and neighbors. Passers-by are handed nuts and dried fruits.

The decision by Tehran City Council -- which religious hardliners won control of in elections last year -- to officially recognize the festival surprised many.

A council official, who declined to be named, explained: "Some are opposed to celebrating Chaharshanbeh Suri on religious grounds but it's a deep-rooted tradition and no-one can deny it. So we decided the best way was to designate some places to celebrate it."

Some clerics were appalled by the decision.

"The superstitious ceremony of Chaharshanbeh Suri is incompatible with the dignity and understanding of the Muslim Iranian nation," Grand Ayatollah Lotfollah Safi Golpaygani said in a statement this week.

"Muslims should remain vigilant and...understand the enemy's goal in reviving this dead and obsolete tradition."

The evening festivities are also an opportunity for young Iranians to meet and flirt in a country where mixing in public between unrelated members of the opposite sex is outlawed.

In one street in western Tehran youngsters danced by blazing bonfires as loud music blared from houses and passing cars.

Some felt the sudden official acceptance of the festival was a ploy by the country's rulers after hardliners won parliamentary elections last month. Reformists, who favor greater political and social freedoms, say the poll was rigged.

"They want to distract the young so they don't have anything to do with politics," said Mahran Izadi, 28, who had stuffed cotton wool in his ears to dull the noise of constant firecracker explosions.